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For Tariq Hassan, who came on board as McDonald’s chief marketing and customer experience officer in 2021, the company started cracking the code of this creator economy during Covid.

McDonald’s ‘share the pen’ philosophy has driven business results

CMO Tariq Hassan has driven tremendous success with the restaurant company’s influencer strategy, leveraging both celebrities and fans to drive sales and traffic through several campaigns.

McDonald’s has grown its systemwide sales by over 30% since 2019 and has gained market share in the process, metrics that executives have attributed at least in part to the company’s wildly successful marketing campaigns.

Consider the Travis Scott Meal from 2020, for instance, which led to a shortage of Quarter Pounders. Or the Cactus Plant Flea Market adult Happy Meals from 2022, which also sold out. Or the Grimace Shake, which lifted traffic in July 2023 by a staggering 16.4% year-over-year. And so on and so forth. McDonald’s has proven its collaborations, whether it’s with celebrities, fans or social media creators/influencers, are highly effective strategies that have injected the brand more deeply into culture, driving business results in the process.

For Tariq Hassan, who came on board as the company’s chief marketing and customer experience officer in 2021, the company started cracking the code of this creator economy during Covid.

“As Americans were looking to come out of their Covid cave and re-enter life, we really had to jump start the brand and I think our Famous Orders campaign, which started with Travis Scott, reminded us that we actually have this amazing, vibrant connection with [consumers],” Hassan said during a recent interview. “When we launched Famous Orders, our fans responded by creating content.”

That campaign, he adds, codified something the company was starting to see prior: Consumers prefer fan-to-fan points of view versus brand-to-fan.

“It sounds semantic, but it’s not. It’s how the brand shows up and that mindset has really led us to think about … providing a platform that fans can relate to that is based on their experiences and truths and their love for the brand where they actually become creators,” Hassan said.

Once that mindset sets in, McDonald’s started seeking out fans who were best suited to “share the pen,” as the company calls its creator strategy. Sharing the pen can work organically, like it did with the Grimace Shake Challenge on TikTok, or in tandem with the brand, like with Famous Orders. Hassan said there are three guidelines McDonald’s follows to hone this strategy. First, finding “fan connection and truth.” Then listening and being in tune with what’s going on around you.

“That’s where understanding the authenticity comes from, which is a really critical element,” Hassan said. Lastly, it’s having the bravery to share the pen.

“If you’re going to work with influencers and content creators, you’ve got to allow them to be who they are. You can’t take it over because you want them to write for the brand; then the authenticity meter goes the completely opposite direction,” Hassan said.

McDonald’s has tested and learned from these three basic guidelines for nearly four years now, and Hassan points to the Grimace Shake Challenge as a moment when the brand really mastered its creator approach.

“When a moment like that happens and your fans take over the way they did on TikTok, it can be really tempting for a brand to lean in, guide and direct. We only did one post in response. A lot of brands would have actively tried to jump in and steer it and that would have quashed fan joy,” he said.

By the time Grimace happened, McDonald’s had enough experience with campaigns and influencers to know that participating in a fan-created conversation is more important than directing the content, he adds.

Of course, “sharing the pen” can also create some risks, especially for a brand as ubiquitous as McDonald’s. The company manages its growing base of influencers through processes, systems, and modes, Hassan said, and they all start with “who” and “why.” McDonald’s governs by two simple rules: brand safety and influencer/creator safety.

“In a world where your social media can go a bunch of different directions, we listen to ensure if something’s working in the wrong direction,” Hassan said. “When you function that way and have the right systems to listen the conversations, we believe you can mitigate risks as best as you can.”

McDonald’s, he adds, has a clear point of who they want to work with, and the top priority is that they’re a fan of the brand.

“Then they’re going to reflect who they are authentically and they’re going to treat the brand with respect to begin with,” he said. “There’s not a person we work with who couldn’t wax on about their own experiences.”

Cactus Plant Flea Market is a good example here. The company handed founder/designer Cynthia Lu a white box and said, “Go.” It was Lu’s idea to bring the McDonaldland characters into that campaign and create that friend group because it was drawing on her own experience of going to McDonald’s with her friends when she was younger.

“We believe when you start with that kind of depth of relationship, you put yourself in a great place,” Hassan said.

So how does McDonald’s build on what it’s built, especially as consumers’ expectations continue to change and as they get used to having shared ownership with the brand? Hassan said the opportunities are both exciting and challenging.

“We are a deep part of [fans’] culture. When we have an amazing campaign, congratulations — you’ve called culture, culture’s called you back. The challenge is how do you stay in culture, because as quickly as you’ve gone into it, you can be canceled,” he said.

McDonald’s strives to define its vision of culture clearly to maintain its pace here — through its food, understanding of its fans and the creative universes they play in, and by leveraging data as a cultural currency.

“This generation, Gen Z/digital first, if you use data to give them experiences, values, and access to things, they will continue to provide that back to you. That data is invaluable to understand where to next, where not to next, and how it’s working,” he said.

He adds that it’s also important the internal culture matches the external culture the company is trying to lead.

“With that structure, we feel really good about how to evaluate that creator economy and how to participate in it,” Hassan said.

He predicts not only a continued growth of the creator economy, but also its continued evolution. He believes, for instance, there will be a “collision of creators” into a wide range of platforms like gaming, social media, the company’s loyalty program, etc., and he believes McDonald’s will play a big part.

“We think the beauty of this is it not only helps us grow our business, [but] we’re growing the creator economy as well, and that’s a great combination,” Hassan said. “That’s the win/win.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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